Commonplace as it’s become, doing Shakespeare in modern dress is still tricky business. The burden is mainly on the actors, who have to properly deliver the playwright’s archaic, acrobatic wordplay while still sounding like they belong in the here and now. (Sorry, DiCaprio fans, but Leo nailed only half the equation in Romeo + Juliet—and it wasn’t the half that had anything to do with dialogue.) So kudos to the cast of Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon’s scrappy, snappy take of one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies. With little exception, the players assembled here—most of them veterans of the Whedonverse—pull off that difficult balancing act with gusto. The performances are strong enough, in fact, to almost completely compensate for the tossed-off nature of the movie, which basically amounts to a bunch of close friends getting together to stage a reading.
Cars, joints, and iPods conspicuously remind Bard buffs that they’re not in Messina anymore. The locale instead is contemporary California, no less sun-dappled for having been captured on monochrome digital video. Setting that swap aside, Ado is faithful: When Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) talk of the war they’ve just returned from—in unaltered banter straight from the play—only their snazzy business attire hints that the battlefield was a corporate one. Claudio has eyes for Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese), the soft-spoken daughter of Leonato (Clark Gregg, a.k.a. Agent Coulson from the Marvel movies). Benedick, meanwhile, carries on his “merry war” with sharp-tongued sparring partner Beatrice (Amy Acker); an opening flashback, one of the film’s only deviations from the text, reveals that they shared an awkward one-night stand ages earlier. Mostly, though, the team sticks to script, even in cases—such as an impromptu, kitchen-set marriage proposal—when the characters’ behavior seems not quite in keeping with the era.
For Whedon, a wizard of words in his own right, the film is a palate cleanser. It was shot on the cheap, over 12 days at his upscale Santa Monica abode, after the director wrapped principal photography on last summer’s The Avengers. The production was threadbare, and it shows: One scene ostensibly set in a police station looks like it was filmed in a dining room, which it probably was. Yet maybe that chintzy, let’s-put-on-a-show quality isn’t such a liability. Unlike, say, Julie Taymor’s lavish big-screen Shakespeare adaptations, Ado never loses the spirit of its source material. The focus is squarely on the actors, who approximate the playful, collaborative energy of a primo theater troupe. Just about everyone shines, but there are standouts. So memorable as the stoner jokester of The Cabin In The Woods, Kranz runs wild here with the rhapsodic ruminations of his gushingly romantic character. Even better is Cabin co-star Acker, nailing the comic agony of a heroine fighting tooth and nail against her own blooming feelings. And those who fall in the center circle of the Whedon-Shakespeare Venn diagram won’t be able to resist Nathan Fillion, flush with fool’s confidence, as dense lawman Dogberry. Who needs production values when you have Captain Hammer reeling with the indignity of being called an ass?